Heartbreak and Hope in Guatemala

By Shannon Beck

Part 1: Many changes, but much remains the same

This is the first in a series of reflections on my trip to Guatemala to explore sexual violence and the ways Presbyterians are engaged in stopping sexual violence.


“Smiles are the courtesy that binds. Colored tapestries and crucifixes line their lives. And if God shows mercy one more time, they’ll get by; they’ll get by.”

I penned those lyrics 30 years ago after my first trip to Guatemala. Today, I am concluding a travel study seminar to explore sexual violence in the Guatemalan context, to hear the good work women and men are doing to stop it, and consider ways to deepen our partnership together to make a global impact.

A lot has changed since 1987. In Guatemala. In me. In the world. I have now visited at least seven other countries, raised two daughters, played a lot of music, planted gardens, moved, grieved, studied, and changed my beliefs. Guatemala still holds a soft place in my heart as my first international experience as an adult. I want to begin with a few observations about what has changed over the years.

Guatemala is now an environmentally conscious country. I remember riding the chicken buses around the country and being disturbed by the garbage tossed everywhere. Coke, which was omnipresent, was poured from the glass bottle into a “bolsa” and tied with a straw sticking out. These bags were thrown out windows and dropped everywhere. Now when you travel across the country, there is far less trash. Recycling occurs in some of the more progressive towns. Eco-tourism is a possibility for those visiting. There is definitely a revolution going on with the environment here.

Speaking of revolution, 1987 was a “cooler” phase of a protracted “conflict” as people refer to it now. It was the Reagan years, post-revolution, with rapid changes of dictatorships, and I was exposed to US government complicity in the bloodshed here. This is a long story, but it needs to be acknowledged in considering the context. For starters, the US helped finance a coup and even flew in the “replacement President,” who was a complete disaster for the Guatemalan indigenous populations. Still, military men and boys with machine guns guarded buildings. Below the surface of kind Guatemalan hospitality, there was anxiety and tension as if at any moment, all hell would break loose. It was almost palpable. Children were forced into military and para-military groups. I remember one morning some ninos were chasing chickens through the Central Square in Antigua, and one of the “guards” dressed in official but over-sized clothing, grabbed his weapon, grinned and, holding up his pants, joined the other children chasing the chickens.

Now there are guards and police. There is less military presence. Whereas in the 1980s, we rode chicken buses through the country, now it is mostly unsafe for tourists. Murders occur on the buses every day. Fortunately, there are other forms of transportation. Although “the conflict” has passed, decades of violence has impacted the consciousness of everyone. Trauma studies show that even one violent event can have an impact on at least two generations. Imagine then, 60 or more years of chronic violence.

Violence against women and children is still a norm. One person I met with told me about an educational effort for men that explained why hitting their wives was wrong. Framed in a Christian context, it was “against God’s will, dishonoring the person and the image of God.” The man, who is a serious Christian, said he had watched his father, uncle, and grandfather abuse their wives and thought it was what everyone did. The deep, unconscious, and core of this way of thinking and being is a long term project, as it is in the US and other parts of the world. For him, education and a spiritual call changed him and transformed his family. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to call us to our higher selves.

The “tipico” food of black beans and tortillas for at least two out of three daily meals remains, although the range of restaurants is impressive in tourist areas. Antigua, where I sit as I write, had perhaps a couple of bakeries in the '80s and only one, Dona Louisa, where I snuck off to eat cake after a day of studying. Now there are espresso shops, formal tourist tiendas with locally made products, as well as the expected myriad of walking salespeople in their indigenous clothing, trying to sustain their family on friendship bracelets, gorgeous fabrics, shirts and the like.

Fair Trade stores are growing. We visited a beautiful women’s cooperative in which women from different areas and (tribes) now work together and share in the profits. They are able to work from their homes and meet at the cooperative at least once/month to bring their work to sell. There is a strong effort to protect the distinct fabrics of each region and there is also a morphing of textiles as women weave together. Colors are shifting some to accommodate a global market. It remains a stunning landscape of textile patterns and handmade work. Beautiful beyond description. Later in this series, I will share one of the worker’s stories. Let it suffice to say that when a woman is economically empowered, she can access what she needs to stop violence in her own home.

Child labor is still a huge problem. At least half of Guatemalans lives below the poverty line. We were in one store and a colleague asked the age of the sales “boy” who looked to be about 12. He said he was “22.” We believe he has been schooled on what to say in these situations. It is common to see families working together to maintain a business. Yesterday, a girl who appeared to be about 7 years old came up to me selling bracelets and the like. I was prepared to say, “no gracias,” but then I listened closer to her. She wanted me to buy her some ice cream. So, we had ice cream together and chatted. She studiously avoided telling me anything too personal like “is your mom here?” She is a beautiful, bright young lady, who is growing up way too soon. It is not unusual to see girls who look barely able to menstruate nursing their babies. For half of the children, childhood is short, if at all.

 There have been many changes, but much remains the same. Our travel study seminar delegation went with an agenda to support our partnerships and mission co-workers in Guatemala working to stop sexual violence in their context. It is my opinion that as we engage the world working on the same issues, we learn much that can help us work together to create systemic changes across the globe. It takes time, but it is possible with openness, humility, and listening closely together. That is what happened on this trip. I will speak to this in my next entry. Until then, as they say in Guatemala, “Que te vaya bien,” which means “May it go well with you.”


This is part one in a series of two. Click here for part two.

This article was first published on the PC (USA) website: Heartbreak and Hope in Guatemala - Part 1 [oktober 26, 2015]